Capitalism’s New Age of Plagues, 1

In this series of articles, Ian Angus argues that the COVID-19 pandemic marks a dangerous turning point, ushering in an era of more frequent and devastating infectious disease outbreaks driven by the destructive forces of global capitalism.

 

[This is the first of a series of articles on the causes and implications of global capitalism’s descent into an era when infectious diseases are ever more common. My views are subject to continuing debate and testing in practice. I look forward to your comments, criticisms, and corrections.]

“We have entered a pandemic era.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci1

The  first case of what was later named COVID-19 was diagnosed in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Within a few months, the zoonotic disease — meaning it originated in animals — spread at never-before-seen speed, affecting every country, indeed every person, on the planet.

In March 2024, official sources estimated that 703 million people worldwide had contracted COVID-19 and just over 7 million of those had died,2 but reality is far worse. The Economist calculates that “excess mortality” during the pandemic is two to four times greater than the official counts,3 making it the third most deadly pandemic in modern times, exceeded only by the great influenza of 1918-1920 and HIV/AIDS since 1980.

On top of its direct impacts on health and mortality, the pandemic triggered what the World Bank describes as “the largest global economic crisis in more than a century.”4 The number of people living in absolute poverty increased by at least half a billion, education for hundreds of millions of children and young adults was disrupted, and countless jobs were eliminated. “Economic activity contracted in 2020 in about 90 percent of countries, exceeding the number of countries seeing such declines during two world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the emerging economy debt crises of the 1980s, and the 2007-09 global financial crisis.”5

Unlike previous pandemics, COVID-19 is part of a wave of new infectious diseases that scientists say mark the arrival of a “qualitatively distinct” period in human health,6 that will “reverse many of the 20th century’s advances in the control of lethal infectious disease. … [and] return humanity to an earlier health pattern characterized by high mortality from lethal infectious disease.”7 Contrary to optimistic 20th Century predictions, infectious diseases have not been conquered. New diseases are proliferating, and many thought to have been wiped out have returned as major threats to human health.

The list of new arrivals incudes chikungunya, Q fever, Chagas disease, multiple influenzas, swine fever, Lyme disease, Zika, SARS, MERS, Nipah, Mpox, Ebola, and many more, on top of resurgent enemies like cholera, anthrax, polio, measles, tuberculosis, malaria and yellow fever. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, at current rates the annual probability of extreme epidemics could triple in coming decades.8

As Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace writes, the simultaneous  emergence and re-emergence of multiple contagious diseases is no coincidence.

“Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us; they represent the unintended results of things we are doing. They reflect the convergence of two forms of crises on our planet. The first crisis is ecological, the second is medical. As the two intersect, their joint consequences appear as a pattern of weird and terrible new diseases, emerging from unexpected sources.”9

In mid-2020, while scientifically illiterate politicians were still insisting that COVID-19 was no worse than flu and would soon disappear, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) convened a multidisciplinary scientific panel to summarize the state of scientific knowledge about COVID-19 and other diseases that spread from animals to humans.10 The experts’ report — which had the singular advantage that it was not watered down or edited by politicians and bureaucrats — offered a very different account of the dangers posed by zoonotic diseases in our time. Some excerpts:

  • “Pandemics represent an existential threat to the health and welfare of people across our planet. The scientific evidence reviewed in this report demonstrates that pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.”
  • “The risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to spread and become pandemic. The risk of a pandemic is driven by exponentially increasing anthropogenic changes. Blaming wildlife for the emergence of diseases is thus erroneous, because emergence is caused by human activities and the impacts of these activities on the environment.”
  • “The underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change. These include land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption.”

In short, the global ecological destruction that Earth System scientists have dubbed the Great Acceleration is driving humanity into an age of Great Sickening. Unless radical changes are made, we can expect that COVID-19 will not be the last global pandemic — or the most deadly.

Historically unprecedented

At the beginning of the crisis, Marxist historian Mike Davis described the emergence of COVID-19 as an “overture to an age of plagues.”11 This new age of catastrophe poses a major challenge to movements for sustainable human development, both in the short term — what measures should we demand to mitigate the devastating effects of COVID and its successors? — and in the long run — how will the presence and probable continuing emergence of deadly new diseases affect our ability to bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old?

The age of pandemics gives new urgency to the classic slogan “socialism or barbarism” — and arguably tilts the balance of social probabilities further towards what Marx and Engels warned could be “the common ruin of the contending classes.”12

This is not just another crisis, and should not be treated as just one more entry on the long list of capitalism’s sins. As Sean Creaven writes in Contagion Capitalism, “it is wholly justifiable to regard the unfolding epidemiological crisis of society (and indeed of nature) as qualitatively different from any that have gone before; that is, as historically unprecedented.”13

An unprecedented crisis demands an unprecedented response. To meet the challenge, the left needs to go beyond criticizing governmental failures and labeling capitalism as the cause. We cannot move forward, let along break out of this age of pandemics, unless we develop a serious scientific (social and biological) analysis of the Anthropocene’s epidemiological crisis. The revolutionary collective Chuăng makes the point clearly in their essential account of the pandemic in China, Social Contagion:

“Now is not the time for a simple ‘Scooby-Doo Marxist’ exercise of pulling the mask off the villain to reveal that, yes, indeed, it was capitalism that caused coronavirus all along! … Of course capitalism is culpable — but how, exactly, does the social-economic sphere interface with the biological, and what lessons might we draw from the entire experience?”14

These articles will attempt to answer those questions.

Source >> Climate & Capitalism

References

  1. David M. Morens and Anthony S. Fauci, “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19,” Cell 182, no. 5 (September 2020): 1077. ↩︎
  2. Coronavirus Tracker,” March 2, 2024. ↩︎
  3. Excess Mortality during the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19),” Our World in Data (blog), February 29, 2024. ↩︎
  4. World Bank, World Development Report 2022, (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2022). ↩︎
  5. World Bank, 1. ↩︎
  6. Ronald Barrett et al., “Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases: The Third Epidemiologic Transition,” Annual Review of Anthropology 27, no. 1 (October 1998): 248. ↩︎
  7. Katherine Hirschfeld, “Microbial Insurgency: Theorizing Global Health in the Anthropocene,” The Anthropocene Review 7, no. 1 (April 2020): 4,. ↩︎
  8. Marco Marani et al., “Intensity and Frequency of Extreme Novel Epidemics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 35 (August 31, 2021): 1. ↩︎
  9. Rob Wallace, “The Virus and the Virus,” Counterpunch (blog), June 14, 2013. ↩︎
  10. IPBES, “Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES),” October 29, 2020. ↩︎
  11. Mike Davis, “C’est La Lutte Finale,” Progressive International, April 30, 2020. ↩︎
  12. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 482. ↩︎
  13. Creaven, Sean, Contagion Capitalism: Pandemics in the Corporate Age (London: Routledge, 2024), 255. ↩︎
  14. Chuăng, Social Contagion: And Other Material on Microbiological Class War in China (Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 2021), 10. Chuăng describes itself as “an international communist project unbound from any allegiance to the irrelevant factions of the extinct movements of the 20th century.” (Ibid, 2) It focuses on analysis of social and economic conditions in China. ↩︎

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